“In that time the Count Ugolino being lord of Pisa, for the bad treatment that he used towards them, the people rose up in anger, coming with force and great uproar to the Archbishop Ruggiero Ubaldini, crying out: “Death! Death!” They took him and threw him in prison with two of his sons and two grandchildren, making them die of hunger in prison…Then Guido, Count of Montefeltro, commanded that Count Ugolino and his sons and two grandchildren never more be given food to eat, and thus they died wretchedly of hunger all five. These were the Count Ugolino and Uguccione, Brigata, Anselmuccio and Guelfo, and it was found that the one had eaten the flesh of the other, and finally the last rites were denied to them and all five in one morning were dragged dead from prison. This Count Ugolino was a man of such cruelty that he made the people of Pisa die of famine while at the same time having great abundance of grain, to such an extent that it cost seven pounds to buy a measure of grain in Pisa; then finally he himself died of hunger with all his family.”
Count Ugolino has had a famous afterlife. Dante came across him in the ninth – the lowest – circle of hell. His head was fixed to the top of another head – one that he chewed, as a dog chews a bone.
Dante interrupts him to ask his tale, and the head lifts itself from its bloody gnawwork to give his name and the name of the head he chews upon – Archbishop Ruggieri –
“That I, trusting in him, was put in prison/
through his evil machinations, where I died,/
this much I surely do not have to tell you.
What you could not have known, however, is/
the inhuman circumstances of my death.
Now listen, then decide if he has wronged me!
Ugolino’s story, in Dante’s version, is not as much about Ugolino’s stored up grain as it is about the deeper hunger – a hunger for something bloodier than grain – in the barely sublimated hunt of politics. Shelley translated this part of the story:
Now had the loophole of that dungeon, still
Which bears the name of Famine's Tower from me,
And where 'tis fit that many another will
Be doomed to linger in captivity,
Shown through its narrow opening in my cell _5
'Moon after moon slow waning', when a sleep,
'That of the future burst the veil, in dream
Visited me. It was a slumber deep
And evil; for I saw, or I did seem'
To see, 'that' tyrant Lord his revels keep
The leader of the cruel hunt to them,
Chasing the wolf and wolf-cubs up the steep
Ascent, that from 'the Pisan is the screen'
Of 'Lucca'; with him Gualandi came,
Sismondi, and Lanfranchi, 'bloodhounds lean, _15
Trained to the sport and eager for the game
Wide ranging in his front;' but soon were seen
Though by so short a course, with 'spirits tame,'
The father and 'his whelps' to flag at once,
And then the sharp fangs gored their bosoms deep. _20
Ere morn I roused myself, and heard my sons,
For they were with me, moaning in their sleep,
And begging bread. Ah, for those darling ones!
Right cruel art thou, if thou dost not weep
(Notice that these images of lean dogs were used by Shelley in his political poetry – especially in the Masque of Anarchy, where ‘seven bloodhounds” follow Castlereagh.
“All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.”)
Ugolino’s suffering is, then, first of a public thing, revealed in a dream, and then shrinking in an instant to himself and his children, who die like this:
They wept aloud, and little Anselm mine,…
Said--'twas my youngest, dearest little one,--
"What ails thee, father? Why look so at thine?"
In all that day, and all the following night,
I wept not, nor replied; but when to shine
Upon the world, not us, came forth the light
Of the new sun, and thwart my prison thrown
Gleamed through its narrow chink, a doleful sight,
'Three faces, each the reflex of my own,
Were imaged by its faint and ghastly ray;'
Then I, of either hand unto the bone,
Gnawed, in my agony; and thinking they
Twas done from sudden pangs, in their excess,
All of a sudden raise themselves, and say,
"Father! our woes, so great, were yet the less
Would you but eat of us,--twas 'you who clad
Our bodies in these weeds of wretchedness;
The fourth day dawned, and when the new sun shone,
Outstretched himself before me as it rose
My Gaddo, saying, "Help, father! hast thou none
For thine own child--is there no help from thee?"
He died--there at my feet--and one by one,
I saw them fall, plainly as you see me.
Between the fifth and sixth day, ere twas dawn,
I found 'myself blind-groping o'er the three.'
Three days I called them after they were gone.
Famine of grief can get the mastery.”
It is at this famous and controversial line that Shelley breaks off. Borges, in The False Problem of Ugolino, claims that the earliest commenters took Ugolino to be saying that fasting did more than grief to kill Ugolino, and not confessing to having despoiled the flesh of his dead children. Borges backs up to consider the way Ugolino represents his children as offering their father their flesh:
“I suspect that this utterance must cause a growing discomfort in its admirers. De Sanctis … ponders the unexpected conjunction of heterogeneous images; D’Ovidio concedes that “this gallant and epigrammatic expression of a filial impulse is almost beyond criticism.” For my part, I consider this one of the few false notes in the Commedia. I consider it less worthy of Dante than of Malvezzi’s pen or Gracian’s veneration. Dante, I tell myself, could not have helped but feel its falseness, which is certainly aggravated by the almost choral way in which all four children simultaneously tender the famished feast. Someone might suggest that what we are faced with here is a lie, made up after the fact by Ugolino to justify (or insinuate) his crime.”
But Borges does not make the leap one might expect from his notion that Ugolino is lying – or is being made to lie. The two notions, of course, imply very different forces - on the one hand, the implication is that Ugolino did commit the crime of cannibalism, and on the other, the implication is that he is being falsely implicated as hinting that he committed the crime of cannibalism. Borges believes that Dante’s choice, here, is to arouse our suspicion without sating it with a definite answer. Borges takes this as a lesson in the form of art, as opposed to the substance of life:
“In real time, in history, whenever a man is confronted with several alternatives, he choses one and eliminates and loses the others. Such is not the case in the ambiguous time of art, which is similar to that of hope and oblivion. In that time, Hamlet is sane and is mad. In the darkness of his Tower of Hunger, Ugolino devours and does not devour the beloved corpses, and this undulating imprecision, this uncertainty, is the strange matter of which he is made.”
LI can travel with Borges so far on this argument, but we are much less sure that the strange matter of art is so different from the common matter of life. For it is part of life that we remember, and tell what we remember. And it is part of memory that we edit. We inexorably edit. Our lives aren’t lived in hard focus or in close up – they continually turn out to be softfocused, full of distracted pans, and the alternatives chosen are often, it seems, chosen unconsciously, or made up as the alternatives of the moment afterwards, after sloth, routine, and the contingencies of success or failure impel us to recarve the past. I don’t know if Borges had read about Schroedinger when he wrote this essay – if not, he stumbled on a Schroedinger-like situation without benefit of physics.
Oops. LI really meant to direct this post back to the predator – prey relationship discussed in the Queneau post. And we’ve gone completely astray. Sorry.